As parents, you hear a lot of talk about how to tell if your child is really faking being sick. But what we really need to be talking about is why your child is faking.
Lindsay Cirincione, Psy.D, director of outpatient operations for the pediatric psychology consult program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, gives her best advice for parents in this situation.
How to Tell If Your Child Is Faking An Illness
“The first step you should take when you think your child might be faking being sick
is to evaluate the existence of the illness,” Cirincione says.
It can be hard to tell if your child is really feeling ill if their complaints are things you can’t measure, such as a headache or a stomach ache. Cirincione says that in this case, parents should look for secondary symptoms—or the absence of secondary symptoms.
Is the child who is complaining of a headache still running around, playing and making lots of noise? Maybe the headache isn’t quite as severe as it was made out to be.
“The important thing to remember is to not get into a power struggle with your child and argue about whether they are telling the truth or not,” Cirincione says.
If your child is faking, it’s more important to understand why they felt like they needed to fake an illness.
Why Children Fake It
The most common reasons children fake being sick fall into two categories: avoidance and attention. They could be avoiding school because of a bully or because they have anxiety about an upcoming test or assignment. They might also be faking an illness because they miss their parents. If they haven’t seen you in a while, they might need attention from you—and that’s normal.
What To Do About It
Teach your child coping strategies such as talking to a guidance counselor, taking deep breaths to calm down or counting to 10.
Talk to their teachers about their academic performance and any overall concerns relating to the classroom. If it seems like your child has difficulty staying in class or keeping up with the classroom’s pace, it might be time to ask the school about testing to see if any undiagnosed disabilities could be a factor.
More importantly, talk to your child to see if they’re feeling worried or upset. Cirincione says to avoid making a big deal about the symptoms themselves because that might encourage the child to use similar tactics to get attention from adults in the future.
“You help the child develop some insight into the meaning of their deception … and the motivations that may have driven the behavior,” notes Judith A. Libow, PhD, coordinator of psychological services at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California, in an article on WebMD.
“Tell them, ‘I want to take care of you in that way, too,’” Cirincione advises.
The most important thing to remember when talking to your child about how and why they’re feeling this way is to remain neutral. Don’t overreact or convey frustration. Children usually have a good reason for faking an illness and rarely have nefarious intent, according to Cirincione.
This year is likely to be the first children are fully back in the classroom after having been home for much of the pandemic. That transition is going to be hard for many children who got used to sharing a space with their families and now have to be away for long periods of time.
You can ease this transition by setting aside a “special time.” This means family time or one-on-one time with your child. For example, it could be a game night, a movie night or time at the park together.
“Treat it like an appointment,” Cirincione says.
Take this time seriously, the same as you would a doctor’s appointment. Talk to your child about it ahead of time, and give them something to look forward to. The unpredictability of the last two years has hurt children’s ability to cope and adjust. A stable, guaranteed time with you will ease their anxiety. “Parents need to understand and remember that mental health is physical health, too,” Cirincione says.
Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like stomach ache. Parents should also keep an eye on their child’s mental health, or they could be ignoring the cause of their child’s symptoms.
Don’t feel guilty for not understanding or knowing right away why your child is faking an illness. Many children don’t understand themselves. They might just not know what to do or how to express their concerns yet.
If you and your partner disagree on how to handle the situation, try getting more information before discussing it further. Talk to teachers and counselors, and if you still don’t agree, seek advice from a therapist. Getting a neutral third party’s perspective can take away a lot of the difficulty in making sure everyone feels heard and respected.